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As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives
Newt Gingrich on Capitol Hill on Wednesday after addressing a Hispanic prayer breakfast.
May 11th, 2011
02:53 PM ET

As he prepares campaign, Gingrich faces hurdles with religious conservatives

Editor's Note: CNN’s Joe Johns will explore the relationship between Newt Gingrich and social conservatives Thursday on The Situation Room at 5 p.m. ET.

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - How big a stumbling block will Newt Gingrich’s three marriages and admission of an affair pose to his efforts to win so-called values voters?

“It’s a huge hurdle,” said Richard Land, the public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, the county’s largest evangelical denomination.

“I must have asked 500 Southern Baptists about this in individual conversations,” Land said. “Evangelical men are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. I find an implacable wall of resistance among evangelical women.”

As he announced Wednesday that he'll seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it's clear that Gingrich is aware of the huge role religious conservatives play in the GOP primaries. But he also knows that his past presents challenges to winning them over.

“In meetings with pastors, the issue always comes up,” said Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s spokesman.

“And he answers it straightforwardly, courageously, without making excuses,” Tyler said. “Once they understand that he, like them, relies on his faith to get him through every day, they can get beyond it and hear his message. It turns out that pastors really are in the business of forgiveness.”

In recent years, Tyler has spearheaded Gingrich’s stepped-up campaign to organize evangelicals and Catholics at the grass roots - and to bring them closer to fiscal conservatives through efforts like the Tea Party movement. Tyler says that campaign will be especially important in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals represent huge voting blocs.

“I’ve been with Newt as he’s met with literally thousands of pastors; he’s made it an ongoing part of our travel agenda,” Tyler said.

On Wednesday morning, hours before he announced his campaign for the presidency via Twitter, Gingrich addressed the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Capitol Hill.

In recent years, Gingrich has also made promoting religion in public life a central part of his message. He says a 2002 federal court ruling against reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because of its “under God” clause was a wake-up call.

At a speech to a Texas megachurch in March, Gingrich said that the United States will be a “secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” in a matter of generations unless Americans fight back against secularization.

Although religious conservatives are likely to respond to that message, the question for Gingrich is whether they’ll accept the messenger.

Gingrich's first marriage ended after he discussed the details of the divorce with his wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He married again in 1981 and was divorced in 2000, when he married the young congressional aide with whom he had had an affair.

Some accused Gingrich of hypocrisy for cheating on his wife around the time the House was impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying about his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Many religious Americans may be apt to forgive him.

“Among evangelicals, the drama of sin and redemption is well understood,” said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “The question is how effectively he can explain that he’s not the same person he was back then.”

Gingrich would not be the first presidential candidate to overcome doubts among religious conservatives because of perceived personal transgressions.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the first divorced person to win the White House, with lots of help from evangelicals who’d supported Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, four years earlier.

“Newt simply needs to address the past in an authentic way that makes it clear he is a changed man,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “and I believe the overwhelming majority of social conservative voters will be fair-minded and forgiving.

“Most important, he needs to talk about how he has found peace and meaning through a personal relationship with Christ, that his marriage has never been stronger and that he has never been closer to his children and grandchildren,” said Reed, who once led the Christian Coalition.

Gingrich has apologized for his past behavior in interviews and usually appears in public with his wife, Callista. Gingrich has also spoken about how Callista helped lead him to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism in 2009.

“What evangelicals see in that (conversion) story is God at work,” Tyler said. “He went to Mass with Callista as a supportive spouse, and evangelicals have told me they think that’s right where God wanted him. Over time, it had a powerful effect.”

Still, some top religious conservatives say Gingrich still has a lot of work to do to win the votes of many conservative evangelicals and Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Land said he told Gingrich late last year that he needs to address his personal behavior in a major address.

“The only chance of clearing this hurdle is to give a major speech in some pro-family forum," Land said, "in which he imagines himself to be sitting directly across from an evangelical woman and convinces them that he deeply regrets his behaviors.

"That he understands how hurtful and destructive it was and that he has apologized to the people involved and is happily married and devoted to his wife," Land continued. "And that, whatever happens, there will be no sexual scandal in the Gingrich White House.”

Land says Gingrich told him he’d think about it.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Newt Gingrich • Politics

soundoff (928 Responses)
  1. nasty5c

    As a dyed-in-the-wool republican, I see Newt as a loser; past his prime. I wouldn't be surprised if he picked Tina Fey as his running mate. Oops. I mean that Palin woman.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  2. Harold Trainer, USAF RET

    Run Newt run, run and run and do not let the shadow of your record catch you and while you run you will run down the repubs and help the demos. Neither party is what is good for America.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  3. sally

    Good grief...How many affairs did the Kennedy boys have ?one even or maybe 2 murders and they were re-elected, How many affairs did Clinton have ? Impeached too ! How many wives has the Donald had ? forget this man's past he is the most experienced person in DC....

    May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • mitzie

      The difference is that the voters were not informed about the Kennedys. We know about Newt. Wouldn't you agree it makes a difference to know the truth?

      May 11, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  4. Louis

    Newt–the name says it all

    May 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  5. gac

    It's a big deal for any republican because their base is comprised, in part, by evangelicals. If he were running for the Democrat nomination it would not matter since hummers in the oral office are cool with their base.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Veritas

      I don't know about that, but at least fewer dems are s3xually repressed religious hypocrites that also are so ignorant that they don't understand basic concepts such as science, gravity, evolution, and logic.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  6. Veritas

    Yet another right wing hypocrite, talking about "christian" values and doing the opposite of what that supposedly means. And then they of course have to be "approved" by the religious m0r0ns. Just like all those gay hating mega church pastors and GOP congressmen secretly being gay themselves. Is there anyone on the right who is not a disgusting @sshole?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  7. jean2009

    Really they are running Mr. Infidelity....par for the Rethugliklan course.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  8. Jon-Michael Britain

    It doesn't matter WHO the GOP or GOTP get. He or She will lose to President Obama...

    May 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
  9. DR Darrough

    A Gingrich candidacy fills me with a serious urge to ...yawn.

    Ron Paul in 2012!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • Fredrick

      I like Paul supporters. They also get so excited when it is time to go to bed on Xmas eve in anticipation of Santa's visit.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Sally

      Ron Paul is a nutter with a big capital letter "L" on his forehead.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
  10. Claire

    Well if Mrs. Newtie is FLOTUS her cause can be teaching young women how to break up marriages. I wonder if she'll have a big letter 'A' sewn on all of her clothes. Newtie can wear his next to his flag pin.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  11. Sally

    A sleazy politician courting sleazy pastors (I call them our version of radical mullas) in order to court morally bankrupt evangelicals. What's wrong with this picture? Evangelicals are a collective dead weight that keep dragging this country down. They are a hateful, arrogant, ignorant, uneducated, hypocritical lot. How can any self-respecting, mature adult court them?

    May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • kingaire

      Sally - Kinda like Rev. Wright - Obama's Pastor??

      May 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Sally

      Yes, the following writer is right. Obama and other Democrats have to do it, too. All politicians have to give lip service that they are good christians–even Democrats. Which is part of my larger point: That religion has no place in the government of a humane, civilized society.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  12. Bob

    I sure hope we see a decent candidate for president announce their bid for office pretty soon. The choices we have now are not any better than the prez we got now.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Trisha

      Remember this prez didn't get us involved in 2 unnecessary wars like Bushy Boy did and then didn't go after Osama, because he wanted to get Saddam instead, because Saddam tried to kill his daddy. All you Repubs really need to get a life. Remember Obama got Osama.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  13. keeth in cali

    Redemption?!? Maybe in his eyes, but not in the eyes of the majority of Americans.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  14. Jim

    Yeah, the way he had affairs with hundreds of women, wait – that was Bill Clinton. Well, how about associating with terrorist Bill Ayers? Wait, that was obama. Well, how about how Newt bought property for half it's value from a Chicago mobster? Wait, that was obama too. Interesting that all these horrible things Newt did are nothing compared to what the dems did.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • Simon

      Bill Clinton 'hundreds"? I think you are thinking of Wilt Chamberlain.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • MAL

      LOL, you embellish the truth sir. Not only what Newt has done is worse, you completely missed the point. All politicians are flawed, however, it is not Newt's poor choices that are in question but how he goes after his political opponents (like you just did) for actions that he himself is doing are has done. For example, he went after Bill Clinton hard for his extramarital affairs while he himself was committing adultery.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  15. kingaire

    OK, OK, I can see your ready to hang him for being a cheater and ready to vote the "kid" back again who has done nothing but wrong things for the U.S.A. The only good thing he has done in two-1.2 years was he didn't stop Panetta and the military from going after Osama.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  16. Jim

    Bob,
    It's because of the fact that he persecuted Clinton with such anger and righteousness, all the while being guilty of the same indiscretion. It's called hypcrisy. Mr. Gingrich spent $40 Million of the tax payers money over a stain on a dress. Was it perjury? Maybe. But it wasn't the kind of perjury that deserved what at that time was an exhorbitant amount of money. It was a political maneuver to try and destroy the man's reputation. So Newt is reaping what he has sown. That's in the bible, you know.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • AR

      i love this!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  17. klarg

    3-family values!

    May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  18. pb

    The man makes all of us on the right look bad

    May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
  19. LouieD

    First thing's first: Newt was fined several thousand dollars for ethics violations while he was Speaker of the House. (The amount of $30,000 comes to mind, but I'm not entirely certain of that.) Bob Dole paid it for him, with the understanding that Newt would pay him back, I believe with interest. I would like to know if he has done so. Not having done so essentially amounts to blowing off a fine imposed on behalf of the American people, not to mention ripping off a friend and colleague.

    Secondly, to have me even CONSIDER voting for him, he would have to own up and apologize for his huge role in creating the current toxic culture in American politics. If it weren't for the obnoxious, scorched-earth political strategies he goaded the GOP into using against Democrats, there might actually be more compromise and reason in our political process.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Simon

      It was actually $300,000

      May 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  20. kara

    Perhaps we should see his divorces as a man able to realize he's made a mistake and correct his actions, as opposed to sticking to something wrong just because "it's what people do".

    It drives me crazy that religion should be so central in elections.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • hazmatsuits

      A man who realizes his mistakes and corrects them would get a separation BEFORE moving on and finding a new lover. I'm willing to give him a pass on the first time but he cheated on his 2nd wife as well, which tells me he's a man who doesn't learn from his mistakes

      May 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Armando

      We all my mistakes, it's human nature. Democrat/Republican all the same. However for a man to show up minutes after his wife's breast surgery due to cancer to sign the divorce papers so he can marry his mistress show's how "heartless" Gingrich is.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • timz

      It's not the divorces, it's the sordid extramarital relationships *before* the divorces and the seemingly callous and unfeeling way he cast aside his wives once he got around to the divorces that I think most people find objectionable. That and his claim to being a "family values" person.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • ALEX-N-ARKANSAS

      It is the fanatics that make it part of the process. These people who insist we follow their version of the Bible need to be pointed out when they don't bother to keep their own houses clean. Newt doesn't want people of the same gender to marry one another because it will 'destroy' traditional marriage, but he can marry and divorce as many times as he likes with no accountability. He was on the House floor railing against Clinton in the impeachment trials while enjoying an extramarital relationship with the adulterer who is now his wife. I don't care, but these people who judge others do not like it when they are judged. hypocrites all.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Matt

      Worked the man for years in Georgia. TRUST ME, Newt is not the type of guy you want for President. Let's just say he's a sleaze in every sense of the word. Wouldn't trust him at all.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • 4mercy

      Well, really, God should be central to everything we do.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • mitzie

      Really...you think expecting someone to be honest, forthright, and have integrity is only about religion? Wow!

      May 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.